Elephants in the Room
The Insubordination of Trump Isn’t Treason. It’s Normal.
The president isn't being subverted by the deep state—he's being thwarted by bureaucracy.
How normal is this? That is the question underlying thousands of conversations, hours of television and radio shoutfests, and scores of published commentaries—all trying to make sense of the latest developments out of the Trump administration.
My answer is a mixed one: more normal than the most breathless analysts have claimed but not normal enough for us to dismiss the matter altogether.
This latest round of analysis was triggered by two developments. The first was Tuesday’s teaser excerpt from Bob Woodward’s new book on President Donald Trump. The second was Wednesday’s anonymous op-ed in the New York Times purporting to come from a “senior official” inside the Trump administration.
The publication sequence suggested that the Woodward excerpts triggered the op-ed, and perhaps it happened that way. But the decision to grant anonymity probably involved lots of hand-wringing and internal debate at the newspaper and thus a long timeline; that suggests both were developed concurrently and independently. Either way, they were clearly of a piece and of the moment.
Both had irresistible clickbait headlines: “Bob Woodward’s new book reveals a ‘nervous breakdown’ of Trump’s presidency” and “I am part of the resistance inside the Trump administration.”
Both told essentially the same story: The team around Trump understands that he is neither willing nor capable to function satisfactorily as chief executive, and it is doing what it can to mitigate the danger this poses to the country. The common apologia was hard to miss: As bad as it looks, it could be worse, so instead of demonizing the people around the president, we should have some sympathy for their plight.
Both raised deep questions of accuracy and authenticity. Some of Woodward’s juiciest quotes received on-the-record and unambiguous denials from the very people Woodward claimed delivered the quotes. Countless skeptics pointed out that the anonymous senior official might not really be senior enough to have had the interactions with Trump the critique implied.
Both raised similar questions about the ethics of journalism and protest: How much can we trust Woodward’s meticulously detailed accounts or published complaints that depend so heavily on the unaccountability of anonymity?
Yet both rang true enough with what scores of well-sourced reporters and former officials have been saying since the Trump campaign moved from a punchline to front-runner status. Only the most blinkered Trump devotee would dismiss them out of hand.
For my part, the whole tandem episode has resonated with my own personal experience in government and area of expertise as a scholar of bureaucratic politics—enough to make me inclined to believe the stories as an accurate enough depiction of a situation that is an extreme version of the kinds of problems that afflict any administration. There’s just enough normality and abnormality to keep me hovering somewhere around Seinfeld’s “serenity now” approach to composure. Here are five reasons why, two on the side of normality and three on the side of abnormality.
First, every president feels his agenda is frustrated by subordinates who do not do exactly what he would like at the pace he would like. In theory, the president has the right to be wrong and to have his policies enacted by the rest of the executive branch. In practice, even strong and adept leaders get pushback—weak and inept leaders such as Trump even more so, especially when trying to enact policies that go against widely accepted norms or deeply entrenched interests. Every administration has internal fights over what to do with bureaucratic politics determining the final policy outcomes. Trump is not the first president to experience shirking.
Second, since Richard Nixon, every president has been frustrated by Woodward’s remarkably effective reporting. Administrations learn that trying to isolate Woodward just results in a narrative that is heavily distorted in favor of those who cooperated. Woodward is an honest reporter. He faithfully relays what people tell him; if only one faction within an administration cooperates, only that side is told sympathetically. Yet every administration learns that while cooperating with Woodward is better than not, it does not guarantee a favorable storyline. During the George W. Bush administration, I was involved in the internal White House wrestling over the two Woodward’s books that covered one of the periods when I was in government—State of Denial and The War Within—and so I know well how accurate he was at points, inaccurate at other points, and how frustrating it was for an administration not to be able to parse that difference for a skeptical public.
In our case, I even toyed with writing an anonymous op-ed in response, though a very different one than what the Trump official produced. State of Denial suffered from some deep flaws—most crucially, Woodward’s own reporting belied the title, and, as The War Within subsequently proved beyond a shadow of a doubt, the Bush White House was not in denial about the Iraq War but was, in fact, struggling to figure out how to manage the problem. There may have been individuals within the Bush administration who were in denial about Iraq’s problems in 2006, but they were not the people immediately around the president who were singled out for critique by Woodward. When the book came out, we briefly discussed the idea of me writing this rebuttal. My Bush colleagues urged me to be wary, given the way administration opponents tended to personalize their policy disputes to the point of attempting to destroy the reputations of people who worked for him—something I had had a whiff of already—and so we considered the gimmick of asking for anonymity. In the end, we did not write the op-ed, deciding my energies were better spent trying to help the president put the Iraq War on a good trajectory rather than trying to correct journalistic errors. This is a conclusion I hope the Trump White House reaches itself.
However, in a perhaps deeper way, this is not normal. First, let’s be clear: Yes, every president is frustrated by political appointees who end up dissing him in public. Barack Obama had Robert Gates and Leon Panetta. George W. Bush had Scott McClellan. And on it goes. They all went on the record with their critique before their respective administrations left office, and some may even have been anonymous critics in news stories before then. But the volume and breadth of the internal critique from Trump’s own team goes beyond anything seen since the end of Nixon’s term and probably eclipses that. Moreover, it has been a consistent narrative, beginning during the campaign and carrying through to the present day: Trump’s unorthodox and improvisatory style, which is so critical to his political appeal to his base, is dysfunctional when it comes to the quotidian tasks of managing a campaign, assembling a team of capable advisors, preparing the transition, adjusting to the duties of the Oval Office, rolling out a 100-day policy agenda, dealing with the inevitable surprises and hiccups, forging effective partnerships abroad and at home, and on and on. What is surprising about the New York Times op-ed and the Woodward book is not the content of the critique but how widely held it appears to be. Simply put, it seems that very few people who work for Trump in senior positions believe he is fit to be president. This is virtually unprecedented in U.S. history.
Second, this means that the dilemmas facing the capable and well-meaning people in the Trump administration (and I, for one, know for a fact that there are many capable and well-meaning people who have worked or are working in the Trump administration) are an extreme version of the sort that anyone with government service has experienced—perhaps so extreme that they amount to a qualitatively different environment. Many staffers from previous administrations can recall moments when they heard a principal muse out loud the policy equivalent of “Will no one rid me of this meddlesome priest?” and then were left to wonder whether the principal intended that to be an implementable order. Many advisors in other White Houses can think of times when an impassioned policy fight seemed to be heading to one disastrous outcome, only to be salvaged when cooler heads prevailed—or perhaps the disaster did come, and those with the better foresight were nevertheless stuck cleaning up the mess. But at most I have heard former officials recount one or two or three examples of this and rarely involving the president himself. The Trump team apparently has dozens of examples, most of them involving the president. The strain that puts on a staff goes well beyond what I know to have been the case in previous administrations. I am inclined to give them a lot of slack for taking unorthodox approaches to dealing with it, even if there are obvious downsides to their efforts.
And here we can pause to note a possible silver lining, at least based on what has been reported thus far. None of the episodes in the Woodward excerpts involves the uniformed military. The generals are retired ones. Yes, as retired four-star officers they exist in a somewhat ambiguous middle-ground position, as I have argued before, but they are currently civilians serving at the pleasure of the president in quintessentially political posts. If the rest of Woodward’s book has similar anecdotes about senior military officers believing they had a professional obligation to ignore otherwise lawful orders, then the situation would be much more corrosive of the norms that form the foundation of the country.
Third, and most problematically, while we can hope that this is a turning point and that the administration will learn from this and develop better systems and processes of management, the record shows that any such learning has been temporary—and that was when the president was mostly the precipitator of the crisis, not the ensnared victim of the crisis. H.R. McMaster was more effective at running the interagency national security policy process than was Michael Flynn, but that did not last. John Kelly is more effective at managing the White House than was Reince Priebus, but that may not last.
More to the point, this latest crisis is almost perfectly designed to trigger Trump in a negative way. All of the elements he has identified as angering him the most are present in abundance. You cannot get more establishment than Bob Woodward. You cannot push more buttons at the same time than 1) writing an anonymous op-ed, 2) calling yourself the resistance, 3) claiming that none of the president’s successes derive from him but rather only from his underlings, 4) publishing said op-ed in the New York Times, and 5) making Trump unable to control the narrative. This is being done to him over and over again. This suggests that the situation will get worse—perhaps much worse—long before it gets better, if it ever does.
And here is the worst part: Whether or not this damages Trump politically is debatable, but this will undoubtedly weaken the administration’s hand abroad. Trump’s political strength derives from a loyal and angry base. This may just make it angrier. But foreign leaders, friend and foe, will read in Woodward a road map for how to manipulate the president and how to tilt bureaucratic infighting in a way favorable to their own interests. Every administration faces that challenge, but has any since the last days of Nixon had it so obviously and publicly on display as this one?
So I can understand in part what this is like, but in a deeper way this feels very different from what I have experienced or studied before. Serenity now, serenity now.
Peter D. Feaver is a professor of political science and public policy at Duke University, where he directs the Program in American Grand Strategy.